Q&A: Claire Danes on the 'Whiplash' New Plot Twists in 'Homeland'

The Emmy-winning actress on the 'contact high' of playing Carrie

Claire Danes as Carrie Mathison in HomelandClaire Danes as Carrie Mathison in Homeland
Ronen Akerman/Showtime
Claire Danes as Carrie Mathison in 'Homeland'
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"Television lets audiences deeply connect with characters," says Claire Danes, and she should know: Despite 17 years of fine movie work, Homeland's bipolar Carrie Mathison is her first indelibly career-defining role since Angela Chase. "It's not a surprise to me," Danes adds, hanging in her upstate New York home during a break from Homeland's seventh episode, "that the two characters that people are most attached to are the ones they've spent the most time with – which is Angela and Carrie. Even though My So-Called Life was only one season, it was still a lot longer than one movie."

It's hard work to be the lead character of a TV show, and this is a particularly grueling role to play – what's that been like for you?  Not to mention that you're pregnant.
If I stop to consider how many demands there are, I will kind of collapse. So I just... I refuse to. Actually, it's not so bad, and last year I was a lot more overwhelmed, because we were all working hard to figure out what the show was and find its edges and kind of establish our relationships with each other as actors and crew members and all that. So it feels like a real luxury this time around to walk into a second season having established all of that. That said, yes, it's a lot, and it's hard, you know, we never really know what the schedule will hold. The last couple of weeks were really punishing, but now I have days free, which I couldn't anticipate. So I just have to have faith that when it does get to be too much, there will be a reprieve.

One of the challenges is not ever being able to assume anything about what's going to be asked of you. So you just have to surf the scripts that come in and the narrative and also just the practicalities of how we're going to lay that narrative down, you know? And how much it's going to need and when. But I mean, I've got a system. I know now that as soon as I get a script, which is often like a day before I start filming, I'll start familiarizing myself with every scene as soon as I can. I mean, on a film you can really get away with learning the scene the night before and that's often just not possible with TV, so you have to be a little bit more prepared a little bit more in advance. Even though I don't know what they're going to ask me to do, I just have to be ready to do it whatever it is.

How tough was it to portray Carrie's breakdown last season?
It was pretty exhausting, but it was also kind of fun. People with the bipolar condition often try to avoid taking their medicine because those highs are actually very enjoyable, so I kind of got a little contact high just after a certain point. Some of it was a bit kind of thrilling in not a strictly negative way. I think that it is just part of the job to descend responsibly and I've been able to; I've kind of figured out how to do that over the years. I guess I was a bit of spinning top, it's true, towards the end, and it is a marathon. Even if they weren't asking my character to arrive at that kind of crescendo I would have been pretty pooped.

As an actress, that is some fun stuff you get to dig into.
Yeah. Absolutely, and I was nervous. I kept asking [showrunners] Alex and Howard, you know, when is she going to crack? When is she going to crack?  Because it was sort of simmering throughout the first season. And they said, "Oh it's coming. It's coming." But I didn't really know how they were going to handle it, and I didn't realize that [Homeland writer Meredith Stiehm's] sister was bipolar and that she had a really intimate understanding of the condition. So when I finally got the script I was so relieved because it was really in keeping with how I had imagined it to be through my research. So if it had seemed phony or disingenuous, it would have been a lot more of a challenge. But I kind of recognized the behavior from the reading that I had done. So it required commitment, but I didn't have to kind of, you know, I don't know, find some way to make the writing truthful. If it weren't.

You also studied a bunch of YouTube clips put up by people in manic states, right?
Oh yeah. A lot of them. That was the greatest way to research it. Yeah, I think people are up at 3 o'clock in the morning and need someone or something to talk to. And I think they also probably feel really, really stranded, and they want to communicate your experience. I read a lot of books and I interviewed people who had it and treated people who had it and all that, but I really wanted to see actual demonstrations of people in their manic states. My best friend is a therapist – and I was asking her, you know, what it was like when her patients were manic in her office, and she said, "Well, I never see them when they're in their euphoric manic state. I only see them when they're agitated. They've been manic for a long time at that point. But if they're in kind of a high phase there's no way in hell they're gonna come and puncture that by seeing me. So I don't really know how it is, what it looks like." So that was kind of interesting.

Were there any as alliterative as Carrie?
Um, a lot of talking. Yeah. But my friend also told me every case is unique. So you can have some poetic license. There are, you know, certain shared characteristics, but every expression is different to the individual. Yeah. They do do that, a lot of word play.

This role was written with you in mind, which I guess you found surprising.
Because she's incredible and a little distressing, too. She's a hero and a monster in some ways. She's just very super extreme and I don't think anybody would easily envision themselves being that extreme. No, I was very pleased that they thought that I was up to it. And that I could at least pretend to be that brilliant. But, yeah, no, I mean – I never know how people perceive me. That's just – I can't. I don't know [laughs]. It usually is not keeping with how I think, how I perceive myself.

You committed to something like a seven-year contract for this show – what was your decision-making process like on that?
I had apprehensions, also because it is so immediately relevant to what's happening in the world today, and we're still grappling with these ideas and these feelings, and I was concerned that it might be too confronting or just too much, or even a little exploitation. So yeah, I had to think hard about it, but I really like Alex and Howard and Michael Cuesta so much and respect them and I trusted – I trust them. They're responsible guys, so I had confidence that they would not be assholes about it. Um, and they haven't been [laughs]. And I think the show is actually surprisingly apolitical. It's really a psychological thriller, and it doesn't make too many, um, kind of abrasive statements about how the world should be. It's just looking at a collection of very troubled people and wondering how they interact with each other.

Did you have specific concerns about the depiction of Carrie? 
With her being bipolar, I really didn't want that to be tacked on to her character or just a gimmick or just some weird affectation. I wanted it to be handled in an honest and responsible way, and they've done that. You know, I didn't want it to be just some weird – I don't know.

Well it's not Monk, no offense to Monk.
Yeah, yeah, yeah. No. Actually, there are quite a few shows now where there's – actually my husband's about to play one, but that's also handled with a lot of integrity. He's doing [NBC's] Hannibal and he plays an FBI agent with some kind of funny mental state, almost super-powered. It's almost like a trend now.

And you weren't sure whether the pilot was going to get picked up. You were sure that it was going to get renewed for a second season. This has all been kind of a surprise for you?
Yeah. I mean, it's always a surprise with television. Now we all feel more confident because the response has been so enthusiastic and so embracing. You know, people are eager for more, but you know – so we have faith that there will be another season and probably another season after that, which gives us some sense of structure, but from day to day we have no idea where our characters are going really. And that's kind of fun. I'm having a good time with that. Again, because these writers are so fantastic and they've been able to maintain such a high quality throughout that it doesn't ever feel desperate. We're still just making – I don't know. We're in the beginning stages of it, but they're very resourceful chaps, these writers.

It was pretty startling when they got Carrie and Brody together so quickly.
Yeah. That seems to be the case with so much of the drama on the show. They're not reserved. They just go for it. And that's true with this season as well, that so much happens in such a concentrated period of time and we all have whiplash from it. And Damien and I awhile ago now, we did the commentary for the pilot and it was really very strange to see our characters at that point, at the very beginning, and before so much had happened in the story that had really changed them. And Carrie seemed unrecognizable to me in some ways. She's been exposed as this bipolar person and she's been outed, and that has really affected her, and I think ultimately in, like, a healthy way. She's wobbly when we first find her and heartbroken about what happens with Brody and having been ousted from the CIA she felt profoundly rejected, but she's also having to come to terms with who she is in a much more honest way and when she does finally rebuild her confidence, she's a lot more formidable. But I kind of forgot that these events in the plot do inform who these people are, and she actually has changed. And there was proof of that when we looked back on what we had done in the past, and that was a real shock. And a really wonderful one. It's not very often that we get to experience that as actors and engage with characters that really do develop over time – and like real time.

And that really is a TV thing. It's not a movie thing.
No. It's super fun! That's a message for all those actors out there.

What was going through Carrie's head in initiating that relationship with Brody?  How much of it was, "I'm going to get the information out of him" versus "I'm attracted to him"?
I think all of that is true. I think that it was very two-pronged, and she had an agenda. She was really keen to get information out of him, and this was a seemingly effective way to do it. But I think even more true than that, they recognized each other in a really deep way and they both were extremely isolated and lonely for similar reasons, and had been broken in a similar place and for similar reasons. But that schism has kind of led them in opposite directions. It ended up being sort of a star-crossed lover dynamic, which they continue to struggle with. I mean, it goes on [this season]. It keeps being.

Are you going to have enough time to do some movie work between seasons?
I think realistically it's probably not going to happen this year, but I would like to for sure. I think by the time that I will be ready, I'll be hella ready.

Before Homeland, your most iconic role was arguably as Angela. Would you be comfortable with Carrie overtaking that?
I mean, sure. I like her so much and I like the project so much and I've had such a kind of – I mean it's been intense but it's also been sort of blessed-out, this experience. But so I have many positive associations with it. But the same has been true with all of the characters that I have played that have also managed to be successful and resonant. So yeah, I'm never – I'm always kind of delighted and amazed when a character has made a real mark, and you know, I'm happy to be dogged by it, cause it means you've done something right. And also over time it's, you know, it's nice to know that people can still get very attached to me in different personas. You know, everybody's imaginations are bigger than we think.

People are still throwing My So-Called Life questions at you. Are you like, "Still? That was almost 20 years ago!"
Not really, because I also love that show, and I still reference it! I still kind of call on lines and pieces of dialogue at various points in my life, because they remain applicable. Yeah, I get it. I really do. And I am still really close with so many people involved with the show. [Show creator] Winnie [Holzman] and I are really great friends. I actually had lunch a few months ago with Winnie and Lena Dunham, which was kind of awesome [laughs].

Did you actually grow up with Lena?
I didn't grow up with her. We grew up in the same neighborhood. My mom had this toddler school in our loft, home daycare, and Lena apparently tried – her mom tried to get her in and there wasn't room. So I'm getting shit for that, like it was my doing. But no, we grew up in the same environment and had these kind of artist hippie parents. So we got to be friends a couple years ago.

What are your hopes for how Carrie's story will end?
I'd like for her to be in less pain, ultimately. And she's getting there, already in this season she's worked a lot out and is a much more integrated person. The fact that she can't conceal her condition anymore is a big deal. It's relevant, and I think ultimately a great thing for her. She has to take responsibility for that part of herself and she also has to reconcile her passion and zeal and commitment to her work. You know she has to find a way to merge those two truths about who she is, which she's kind of getting closer to. But I think she was this sort of vigilante in the beginning and one of her greatest assets is that she had nothing to lose. That was one of her greatest advantages in her work. And that's not really sustainable, and it's ultimately kind of sad. I don't want her to sacrifice everything for this one cause.

What was going on for you in that great smile at the end of Episode One in this season?
That was a crazy day of shooting. We were in in a market and it was just mayhem. And I don't even remember – I barely remember shooting that because it was so harried and we had no time to get it. I think we did a take, maybe two, so I don't even know how to answer it because it was just bedlam.

Well, you know they called the episode "The Smile"?
I do know! I do know, and I remember at the time it was like, "I think this is a really critical moment!  It's the name of this particular episode." But I just [went] "Yeah, so, okay. Moving on."  Which is also just the nature of television, which I also really like, 'cause you can't get too precious or fussy. You've gotta lay it down and keep going forward.